5 min read

At the Nexus of Disaster and Dysfunction

There was a piece a couple weeks ago from Texas Monthly about last year's winter storm and the ERCOT grid failure that got me thinking. It's a great piece, really digging into what the situation was like for residents of Texas as well as the people in the chairs making the decisions. I know I've been beating this drum a lot lately, but what happened in Texas is a prime example of what can happen when the government–or major private infrastructure–fails at, or chooses to ignore, their duties. And I don't think the danger there can be underestimated.

This isn't new subject matter for the newsletter–I don't know what new subject matter would be unless it's aliens or the specific threat of a nuclear assault on America (there's an idea; stay tuned true believers). But we haven't spent a lot of time talking about the failure of government alone as its own emergency, and it very much can be, because we very much rely on the government–and major private infrastructure–in our everyday lives.

Feedback Loops

As the Texas Monthly piece linked above will point out, Texas had, by all accounts, a pretty fantastic grid twenty years ago. They got work done quickly, they adapted to and incorporated an impressive amount of renewable energy sources, and a third thing. But, naturally, everything about Texas is beholden to fossil fuels. In 2011, a similar winter weather event hit the state that caused pervasive blackouts for several hours. The state legislature vowed to bring the parties responsible to task. However, thanks to how reality works, nothing changed. Efforts to force winterization on the industry faltered quickly. Cue 2021, and the event repeated, but worse.

Part of what made this disaster so bad is the feedback loop of the power plant to natural gas plant to power plant pipeline. Both rely on each other, and though neither industry has done terribly well at winterizing, the natural gas/fossil fuel side of things has been especially resistant to change, causing some of their facilities to go offline early on in the crisis. With fuel supplies pinched, power plants were unable to generate electricity, which, besides making it difficult for you to read this newsletter, also makes it difficult for natural gas plants to operate. This vicious cycle spun up fairly quickly at the start of the bad weather, until a kind of critical mass was reached, and the metaphorical meltdown was only averted by a blackout that affected millions of people.

To be clear: this sort of event happens around the world constantly. It gets very cold on planet Earth and we have generally figured out how to get by. But when profit is king, we tend to think less about how to keep things running under hypotheticals than how to make the most money in the present. And the fossil fuel executives that own the Texas government have done a fine job of making sure that's the status quo. Some companies, if you haven't heard, made off like bandits during this crisis. A handful of natural gas suppliers saw billion dollar earnings in days thanks to the price gouging that occurred through the disaster.

The Lesson

Before anyone gets cocky, how many headlines about your state would you have to read before you heard about some corruption scandal or other? Ohio, where I'm from, recently had its own energy-grid related dust up when a state representative was found to have taken part in a scheme to bail out a nuclear energy concern. The rep was arrested but still won re-election. Our government is trash. Anyway, not my point.

My point is that Texas is not unique in its confluence of vulnerabilities and deliberate lacunae. The nature of capitalism and our government means that deals like this, explicit or no, are a maddening web across the system. You may have seen John Oliver talk about the state of our 911 infrastructure some years back, or AccuWeather's attempts to supplant the National Weather Service. Both of these public services are so ingrained in our society that to imagine them corrupted or disappeared is unimaginable. Many communities–one of which I was a part back in the day, as a 911 dispatcher–outsource their dispatching to communication centers with nothing but contractual ties to government and community. This is a cost-saving measure, but it puts literal and metaphorical distance between key players in a life-saving part of the emergency response system, and, importantly, it turns what was a public service into a business. It's possible the same could happen with the NWS and AccuWeather.

This stripping of essential services for profit costs lives. It will cost more. And as we continue our inexorable descent toward pandemonium, more of these services will be excised, or co-opted, for a dollar. It is not much of a leap to see a regional collapse of a system like 911 that causes a county to make tragic missteps in an emergency response situation, nor is it a leap to see a subscription weather service like AccuWeather withholding information that could save lives instead of the NWS, which does its best to promote said information.

A Hypothetical

In Texas, the deliberate negligence of one industry met the inefficacy of government oversight, which allowed for a powerful–but not inevitable–weather event to strike and immobilize the state. With climate change only worsening, it is not far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which a similar event occurs elsewhere in the country. We've seen in just the last couple years what happens when unanticipated weather patterns strike major metropolitan regions, and of course we're all familiar now with how the impunity with which power companies act in California can lead to town-destroying fires. I suppose what I'm saying is, expect this again, as time goes on, but worse.

Imagine the year 2025–or don't, I sure don't want to. Trump or Trump-1000 has disposed of, among other things, the National Weather Service. All climate change progress has been halted or reversed. Corporations, like white supremacists, are free to operate precisely as they please. Then we get a particularly stiff storm from off the Rockies, sweeping across the Midwest.

First, flooding strikes a dozen counties with more rainfall than was expected due to faulty models from AccuWeather; then, emergency personnel are slow to respond to particular civilians due to the 911 calls being routed through a commercial call center for several counties; the flood eventually breaches a nearby power station, causing a blackout due to unenforced safety measures. People are left stranded in their homes, if they're lucky, or on their cars, in trees. Any aid that does come is at random, or directed by neighbors and community members. As the floodwaters abate, a heatwave hits the region, and people with waterlogged homes, no power, and likely little drinking water, have to survive while the government struggles to mount a response. While there would likely be few dead of the flooding, the aftermath would kill more, and the area affected would be set back by a decade. Thousands would be without homes, without jobs. Thousands and thousands of acres of farmland would be inundated, and crops lost. Thus, all of us, across the country, would feel the impact of the disaster.

These sorts of floods have been happening with increasing frequency in the Midwest, with vast areas in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota subjected to record floods in 2019. What's mentioned in the article but not in the hypothetical is that an affected power station was in fact a nuclear power plant. A significant wrinkle, that, since it's been shown American plants are at risk due to climate change.

We could do hypotheticals all day; I write fiction, after all. But hypotheticals don't matter. What matters is that I reach you, that you come away from this seeing the holes in our society, the gaps in the dam that keep us upright. I haven't even discussed underserved communities today, who are at even greater risk. Unless you're new to the newsletter, you know what actions I'd suggest: have plans in place, have water and food stored away, and build relationships with your neighbors. So tell me, what have you done on any of these fronts, lately?